Episode 48- The Bathtubs or the Boiler Room
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
ANDREA SEABROOK: “I have this habit of walking into any door that’s unlocked. And it actually does me well here in the Capitol becuse you start poking around and going into doors and you find the coolest things.”
ROMAN MARS: You have to appreciate the moxy of someone who can wander around a federal building, open up a random door, and announce to whoever is on the other side:
ANDREA SEABROOK: “Hello. Hi, I’m Andrea Seabrook with NPR.”
RM: If you didn’t catch that, that’s NPR congressional correspondent Andrew Seabrook.
AS: “I’m a reporter. We’re poking around looking at secret things in the Capitol.”
RM: I am so in love with Andrea Seabrook right now.
SAM GREENSPAN: The woman on the other side of the door tells Andrea that she needs to leave. And that walking into random doors in the basement of hte U.S. Capitol building is not what she’s supposed to be doing.
RM: And that’s 99% Invisible’s own Sam Greenspan. He went with Andrea to the Capitol building. I’m so jealous of him right now.
AS: (whispering) “That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”
SG: “That doesn’t deter you, though.”
AS: “No. Are you kidding? I don’t care what they think I’m supposed to be doing. I’m here to cover the United States Capitol. And frankly I see this as part of it. Down the steps.”
RM: Even if you try to set aside its role as the hub of Western democracy, the Capitol building itself—just the building—is an overwhelming structure.
AS: “There are six thousand people who work in this complex. That’s including the staffers, though. Not including the politicians. It’s a huge city. And it has one function, if you can call it a function: and it’s running the Legislative branch, the government. Both, you know, writing the bills and cleaning the toilets.”
RM: As if we can tell the difference! Am I right? <ding ding ding bell>
SG: The Capitol is known for its grandeur. The rotunda, statuary hall, the crypt, the marble staircases.
AS: “This place is unbelievably ornamental. The walls upstairs have gorgeous friezes, you know, with birds and squirrels and gorgeous gorgeous liltiing beautiful paint work.”
RM: And that’s all the stuff we’re supposed to see. But when you’re an inveterate door knob turner and snoop like Andrea Seabrook, you also get to know the Capitol below the surface.
SG: Literally: the basement
AS: Down here, there’s a whole bunch of engineers - HVAC enginers in blue uniforms that say, like, Joe on them.
RM: The purpose of the building, the business of government trickles down to these lower levels.
AS: “The members of the House Republican caucus and sometimes the Democrats, meet in the basement for their closed door secret strategy sessions. And it’s a really good place to get … a tip from members that you know about what’s going on.”
RM: But the reason we’re here is to see a little bit of the architectural grandeur that has trickled down here, too.
AS: “Oh, it says ‘please check in with the engineers.’ Which I think I’ll do, just… woohoo! Onething that’s cool is… oh, I’ll just show it to you.”
SG: Andrea is leading me thought the serpentine route of alleys, doorways and…
SG: “Really in the … Oh my gosh! here we are.”
AS: <laughs> “I know. It’s amazing.”
SG: And then there are these bathtubs.
AS: “It’s amazing. There are these beautiful marble bathtubs with marble steps that lead up to them and brass fittings, and they’re deep beautiful bathtubs. Just to describe it a little bit: it’s sort-off a white ivory marble that has this luster. It reminds me of the Venus de Milo or something—it shines, it glows a little bit. And it’s got very faint, black veins in it. And it’s just gorgeous. The curves in it are so gentle and continuos.”
RM: But for all the grandeur the tubs possess, the room itself is the exact opposite. This place was supposed to cool off Senators. Not it cools, and heats, the entire Capitol building.”
SG: There’s big HVAC equipment, and computer servers, and large steel cabinets containing God knows what.”
RM: Even though the bathtubs along with the sink and toilet were here first, they’re the ones that seem out of place.
SG: The bathtubs were installed around 1860, during the expansion ofthe Capitol. D.C. is known for its swampy summers, and legend has it that Senators could be banished from the Chamber if they were too smelly.
AS: “It still reeks, but yeah. Back then, it was less figurative.”
SG: And most people at the time, even politicians, they didn’t have indoor plumbing at home. So, Congress needed a place where the politicians could go and wash up.
RM: Andrea reads from an informational card beside the tub.
AS: “Ok, here we go: Each bathtub, and I am standing in one right now, was carved in Italy from a single block of Carara marble. Three bathtubs were shipped from Genoa, Italy in July 1859 and reached Baltimore in November of that year. July to November! The other three were shipped from Leghorn, Italy, in September of 1859 and arrived in New York in January of 1860. The precise dates of the bathtub’s arrival and installation at the Capitol are uncertain, but the Senate bathing room is know to have been in operation as of February 23rd, 1860.”
SG: Each of the six tubs cost 90 bucks in 1860. Which is around $2,500 a piece today. And that was just to buy the tubs. You’ve got to figure it was still more to ship them from Italy, recieve them at the port of Baltimore, transport them to Capitol Hill, and then you had to build a bathing facility suitable to a senator. They had oak-wood panelling…
AS: “Plaster cornices…”
SG: Minton tile …
AS: “Egg and dart moulding …”
SG: Of the six original tubs, only two are left. And one has a piece of plywood over it, that props up some padlocked, steel mystery box. The other was decommisioned years ago.
RM: This place is a total collision of eras. Not just old versus new. And I know that just a little bit ago, we were considering the Capitol building as just a building. It’s impossible to look at this room and not see a metaphorical debate right here in the basement.
AS: We are having this great debate in our country, whether you are in the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement: both share the same concern about who the government is for. And, I think the politicians have tried really hard to make it look as if the government is for the people and not for the gorgeously appointed bathers of the world. For example, when Newt Gingrich took over the House speakership in 1995, after, you know, a giant sweep of the ‘94 elections. He found that there were buckets of ice still being delivered to every single Member of Congress’s office, even though they all had refridgerators with ice makers. It was back from the time when you had to buy ice separately. And so they sort-of shut down all that stuff. At the same time, they got rid of the House historian. They defunded all of these things they thought of as luxuries, and they got rid of a lot of the funding for saving things like this!”
RM: As Andrea puts it, the spending vs. austerity question is really just the modern form of the quintessential American question of government:
AS: Which is: how much government should exist? What is it there to do? And, at one point, about 140-some odd years ago: there was this idea of the government being an important institution. One that would have gorgeously appointed baths. And now, we’re sitting in a boiler room, and the beautiful Minton tile has been painted over with industrial gray paint, and the walls are kind of dirty, and it’s loud. There’s no way to pay homage to it anymore. It’s tucked in a corner and dirty. And there’s a roach trap on the floor. … “How gorgeous. See how the marble kind of sparkles a little bit if it’s a little bit clean? Look closer, see this sort of lustre?”
RM: I don’t think there’s any modern political persuation that would advocate for the installation of luxurious, $3,000 marble bathtubs for Senators, as lovely as they may be. The bathtubs not the Senators. But if the ornate marble bathtubs are already there, they were installed 150 years ago: what do you do with them? What represents the people now?
SG: “I mean it’s interesting that it’s still preserved … it’s likely not going to be restored.”
AS: “No. Not unless we had some resurgence and respect for our government. Can you imagine the people wanting to pay—even if it was only, I don’t know—give it $500,000, just to be crazy, just to restore this area … it maybe a lot more than that, actually, come to think of how much you’d have to move … but, I don’t know … Want to go open some doors?”
RM: 99% Percent Invisible this week was produced by Sam Greenspan, who I’m so jealous of, he’s totally fired. I’m in my house. He’s traipsing around the Capitol building with Andrea Seabrook. You’re dead to me … and me Roman Mars. With support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco. And the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchance, making public radio more public at PRX.org. You can find the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars or you can just catch up with us on the website: 99percentinvisible.org